David Fincher loves characters who are difficult to love. He shows his affection by framing them with unerring precision — and as Michael Nordine wrote in our review, it’s a level of care that often exceeds his material. The story of ex-journalist Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) coping with police and press scrutiny after estranged wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) vanishes under mysterious circumstances, Fincher’s prowess transforms “Gone Girl” into a blend of media satire and gender politics that zips along at a giddy and unpredictable pace. “I liked many parts of it, but I still think it failed,” said one insider Friday night after Fincher’s “Gone Girl” opened the 51st New York Film Festival, encapsulating the divide.
While Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack elevates the intensity, and Affleck’s fame imbues his role with an enjoyable meta dimension, it’s Pike who truly rises to the occasion by endowing her femme fatale with a dizzying uncertainty. Stop to scrutinize and “Gone Girl” collapses into soapy melodrama. But Fincher’s narrative command results in a movie that simultaneously embraces and mocks its own existence.
As with “Fight Club” and “The Social Network,” Fincher has a gift for burrowing deep inside pop culture. And while “Gone Girl” is not the year’s best film, it may be the best in its embodiment of the year’s most potent themes. “Gone Girl” arrives in theaters in the last quarter of the year, serving as the last word on many subjects and formalizes virtually every notable topic found in American movies this year — the good ones, anyway.
As journalists hound Nick Dunne and transform his private life into national soap opera, we begin to wonder if the narrative surrounding the couple’s troubled romance was set in place by the gone girl herself. In flashbacks, Nick and Amy come across as passionate, self-involved narcissists empowered by their ability to manipulate the masses.
“Gone Girl” sets the stage for an even more savage exploration of fame in “Birdman,” which closes the New York Film Festival next month ahead of its theatrical release.
In Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s jittery black comedy — shot in a simulated long-take almost exclusively backstage at a Broadway show — Michael Keaton plays a thinly veiled caricature in the form of a former superhero star desperately attempting to reclaim his artistic cred. As with “Gone Girl,” the contrast between public and private narratives collide into a wild, thorny set of contradictions. When Keaton’s character becomes a viral hit following an embarrassing snafu, he’s not sure whether to embrace it or recoil. Nick also faces that uniquely contemporary paradox throughout “Gone Girl,” when the press routinely puts his face on television and he can’t help but smile.
Similarly, Julianne Moore embodies that idea in David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars” (also at NYFF), in which she plays a movie star so desperate to reclaim her fame that it has transformed her into a sociopath — and she’s not alone. In “Nightcrawler” (opening next month), Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best performance to date as a camera-wielding lunatic eager to record violent events and sell them to the local news. Collectively, they signal a widespread anxiety about a time in which nothing is deemed too sacred for the public eye.
The bitter denouement of “Gone Girl” expresses a succinct rejection of marriage. While the studio-mandated vision of marriage found a very funny outlet this summer in “Neighbors,” there’s something in the air that questions such conservative interpretations of modern relationships.
“Gone Girl” bears a striking resemblance to the labyrinthine plot of “The One I Love,” also released this summer. In Charlie McDowell’s irreverent comedy-thriller, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a couple attempting to address their failing relationship while trapped in a peculiar sci-fi setting in which neither of them may be the people they appear to be. Like “Gone Girl,” it sounds a note of despair about the idea of a stable romance without an expiration date.
It’s a perspective also explored in “Obvious Child,” the so-called “abortion comedy” in which Jenny Slate’s character chooses to end her pregnancy without consulting her on-off boyfriend. In “Le Week-End,” Roger Mitchell’s tender portrait of an aging couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan), the squabbling duo roam Paris debating whether they should remain together. Both “Obvious Child” and “Le Week-End” deconstruct traditional notions of romantic entanglement — basically, that once you get entangled, escape is futile. “Gone Girl” celebrates one possible alternative with a wicked grin.
Fincher’s better at suspenseful engagement than emotional payoff, and “Gone Girl” works best when the director dials up cynicism to the max. Some of the best American movies of the year also embrace this agitated state: Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” contrasts a vibrant exterior with a dark, tragic plot that ostensibly addresses wartime atrocities, as well as broader winds of change that no one can escape.
Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” finds its jaded vampires making peace with mortality but growing tired of a world that no longer offers surprise or excitement. The wackier genre efforts “Cheap Thrills” (in which desperate men engage in increasingly violent “Jackass”-type stunts for cash) and “Blue Ruin” (a tightly wound revenge tale) similarly depict a time when even the prospects of success underscore grim, hopeless agendas.
That conflict lies at the root of “Gone Girl,” which provides the giddy high of watching a scheme come together, but leaves us in a state of moral confusion with no easy way out. It’s a fun ride, but at what cost? The question lingers as the credits roll.